Voting: Your least powerful tool to affect public policy

The Voting Contradiction

(From 2007 Edition Of Keep On Voting After The Election)VoteForBlogindex

Some will argue that the real source of political power, for most people, is their right to vote. Certainly after the elections of 2000, 2004 and 2006, we know voting is important. I urge my clients to get their people registered. It’s the entry-level act to get political clout. It’s important and I hope you will vote. I emphasize this because what I say next is hard for people to understand, and I want you to know that I truly believe in voting.

Voting is the least influential weapon in your political arsenal. It makes a difference by default. Bad things may happen if you don’t vote. Voting seldom makes good things happen.

Of all our possible actions, voting is least likely to enable you to affect policy or legislation.

  • Voting is the most difficult and costly weapon to mobilize.
  • You can only vote every two, four, or six years depending on the office.
  • You can only vote for a few people. They may not be the ones who determine your fate. Your own member of Congress may not be in a position to help you because he or she isn’t in leadership (those who control the House and Senate, the governor and president) or because they just don’t have the clout.
  • Your vote only determines who gets elected, if that, and only affects the district in which you live.
  • Even if your candidate wins, you haven’t told them what to do and they may not agree.

I know, just a few votes more in Florida and Al Gore would have been president. Just a few more in Ohio and John Kerry would have been president.

Sometimes, it’s close. Governor Christine Gregoire of Washington State was elected in 2004 by 129 votes out of 2.6 million cast. After the state supreme court ruled that “one or more” votes in were invalid in a Montana race, the Democrats gained control of the House of Representatives. The U.S. senate race in Virginia in 2006 was very close and determined which party would be in control. Sometimes, rarely, just few votes matter. I always vote, and I hope you always do.

But in fact, outcomes of district and state elections are rarely in doubt. The Presidential elections of 2000 and 2004 were aberrations in the context of all the elections held.

In the 2002 election, 38 of the 435 U.S. House races were considered competitive, that is, with margins of victory less than 10 percentage points. Only four House members lost their seats to challengers in 2002; four others were beaten in combined districts where incumbents ran against each other.

In 2004, only thirty-one seats were decided by less than 10% margins. Only twenty incumbents had seriously contested races. Eighteen won, one was defeated by a challenger, one was defeated by another incumbent (Texas) after their districts were combined.

In 2006, even though control of the House and Senate changed, that change was caused by voters in fewer than 40 House districts and six Senate races. Granted, if you could vote for any of those races, you counted.

VoteForBlogindex2Even so, remember that in 2006 93% of House seats did not change party hands. In the Senate it was 94%. Put another way, the incumbent or the incumbent’s party was returned to office in 432 of 468 races (435 in the House and 33 in the Senate).

Since 1996 more than 98% of incumbents in Congress have been reelected and it’s about the same in state legislatures (term limited states are an exception). This is important: 95+% of people in office will stay in office as long as they want and legally can and there is nothing you can do about it. Even if you back a candidate who wins, your person may never have significant influence and may never be a player in the issues that are important to you.

What’s more, regardless of their power, our election process does not tell candidates what to do after they are elected. Because of the election process we have today, where candidates usually are selected in primaries rather than by parties, it often doesn’t make a lot of difference who gets elected. The people who might win are not radically different. Just look at presidential elections: Does the president ever turn government dramatically in one direction or another? No. Even though his opponents may hate him—or his wife—for what they seem to stand for or for his behavior, the fact is that we have about the same kind of government we would have had no matter who was elected. What drives public policy is less the person in office than the people pushing up from the bottom and they change much more slowly, almost imperceptibly.

Okay, if you were on welfare during the Clinton years, maybe. If you were a member of the armed services and didn’t want to go to Iraq, maybe. A George Bush presidency certainly differs from a Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama – in the large, overarching issues like the war. But even there, how much difference did you see after the Democrats took over Congress 2006? Certainly in the other 99% of issues before the country that never are covered in the media and that affect only you and few others… Little or no difference. What about the great Republican revolution of 1994? Did it change your life? Even the Contract for America—which mostly passed in the House of Representatives—resulted in only a few minor changes.

Did you notice how the government downsized and the budget was reduced and balanced after the Republicans controlled the House, the Senate and the White House during the Bush years?

For emphasis: the only thing your vote might determine is who gets elected. In most races your vote won’t even determine that. In the case of most issues that touch your practice, you have little or no power to make change through elections and it doesn’t matter who is elected. Here’s why:

1. In almost every election, the candidate must receive 50% plus one and the winner takes all. Therefore, only candidates who run as ‘‘plain vanilla’’ can win. A smart candidate sits squarely in the middle of the road—as ‘‘middle’’ is defined in the election district—and takes as few stands as possible on as few issues as possible. They have to. Every time you take a stand, you are more likely to arouse the opposition than your supporters. So most issues, certainly most medical issues, never come up in an election in any meaningful way.VoteForBlogindex3

2. Issues raised in elections tend to be the popular, lightning rod issues, often social issues. Crime, abortion, welfare, the economy, the death penalty, immigration, social security, health care, gas prices: Most of these issues are so intractable that nobody can do much more than make a marginal change, no matter what. However, they are all great campaign issues. They arouse passion in the electorate and generate votes. They are important. But what, realistically, can anyone do about them? The issues discussed in most campaigns, and the issues candidates tend to promote, have little or nothing to do with the everyday running of your practice or specialty.

Of the issues that members of Congress and state legislatures work on, 99.44% are never discussed in campaigns. These are the nitty-gritty regulatory issues that determine how insurance and reimbursement works, scope of practice, liability and so on. An average legislature may consider 2,000 to 5,000 bills in an annual session. Most touch only a few people, although for them, the impact can be terrific.

For instance, you are an emergency room physician and you can’t get paid because of insurance company rules. Whether physician or staff, medicare reimbursement rates and rules affect you. These sorts of issues are almost never important in deciding who gets elected.

Think voters really care about issues? The Washington Post reported a conversation with two voters who had made up their minds. One told a candidate, ‘‘I knew I was going to vote for you because of the handshake.’’

He couldn’t name a single issue she favored, but he admired her confidence. ‘‘You can tell something about a person from a handshake.’’

Another voter said, ‘‘I was impressed that she thinks she can make a difference in education. I haven’t voted in a while. But I haven’t had anyone knock on my door.’’ This voter did not ask what kind of difference the candidate would make on any issues.

3. In fact, issues very seldom determine elections. Most people who get elected win because of name recognition and personality. They are well known and liked. In 1998, a pro wrestler turned radio talk show host named Jesse Ventura became governor of Minnesota; he was well known and likable. He said all the right things. Could he govern? Where did he stand on issues? Most people, even those who voted for him didn’t know or care.

Frequently voters project their feelings and values onto candidates they like without actually knowing what the candidate believes, just as they think they know movie stars from the characters they play.

Some candidates happen to do a particularly good job of promoting one of those insoluble social issues and ride into office. If those elected the first time have any particular knowledge of how politics really works or know anything about medical practice issues, that is a fortuitous accident.

4. We don’t always get the best and brightest running for office, especially at the state and local level. People who run for political office are often those with little or no experience in anything except a low-level job, worthy as that may be. One reason is that anyone who wants or needs to make significant money cannot afford to be in politics. The job is demanding and, in most states, the pay is lousy. (‘‘Lousy pay’’ depends on your perspective. One state representative in Missouri told one of my seminar audiences he ran for office because he was going broke on his farm and didn’t know what else to do.)

I am constantly surprised, therefore, at the significant number of talented, bright people who run for public office out of a sense of responsibility and desire to do good. Why they would do so is a mystery, given the thanks they usually get from the people and the media.

5. Historically, something more than 95% of incumbents will get reelected and there is nothing you or anyone else can do about it. Unless they really mess up, they are in office as long as they want to be.

Understanding and accepting the above five points is a crucial step to achieving Personal Political Power. It is key to the power exercised by professional lobbyists and special interest groups. They know that it is not who gets elected that decides most issues. They know that most elections are decided on personalities and name recognition, not issues.

Professional lobbyists know that most elected officials come into office, and many remain in office, ignorant of most issues. This is not to criticize them but to recognize reality. They cannot know much about many issues because there are too many.

Smart lobbyists and special interest groups also know, therefore, that it is what they do before, after and apart from the election that will determine their success at getting what they want from the political system. Political professionals and smart organizations will frequently support both sides in an election in order to build a relationship with whoever wins. They understand that the point of supporting candidates is less to get someone to win, though that’s great when it happens, and more to have a relationship with whoever wins.

U.S. Rep. Bill Posey explains how politics works, something grass roots grassroots advocates need to understand to become effective advocates and lobbyists.

Rep. Posey gives honest answer: Politics is about who gets what when

Bill Posey served in the Florida House for eight years and then the senate. Now he’s in the U.S. House. He likes to tell the story about when he was first elected and asked an experienced elected official what politics is all about. The old pro said, ‘‘Politics is just a matter of who gets what, when.’’

‘‘I was discouraged,’’ Posey said. ‘‘I didn’t want to believe that.’’ But now, after many years in office, he says it is true.

I learned reality in a different way. In 1992, I ran for state house of representatives in a district in Charlotte, North Carolina. I was full of idealism and eager to make the system work better. An old pro I consulted also told me something I didn’t want to believe. ‘‘Don’t spend a lot of time studying the issues,’’ he said. ‘‘Nobody will ask you about them, and that’s not going to win the election anyway.’’

It was discouraging but true. I have talked about this with many, many people in office. They almost all agree there is a lot of truth in the statement: Issues seldom win or lose elections. It’s especially true that issues of medicine are unlikely to rise to any level of interest or importance in any election.

In my own campaign, after advertising, going door to door and being interviewed by the media, I received only 11 phone calls from my 24,000 potential voters. Ten were from an organized anti-abortion lobby. One was from a concerned citizen who wanted to hear my stand on issues.


The result is that most elected officials enter office as an empty vessel. They are ignorant. While they have campaigned on some issues, including being ‘‘for healthcare’’ and “for education,” they probably don’t know about your issues and they probably don’t care.

Don’t be discouraged. It doesn’t mean that they can’t or won’t help you. It doesn’t mean our system of democracy is failing. In fact, if anything, this is the root of our salvation and the reason I retain a deep and abiding faith in our democracy.

Because there is one thing politicians do care about: getting elected and reelected. That is and should be their primary goal. Many people will say with disdain, ‘‘She only wants to get elected.’’ Of course she does. “He will say anything to get elected.” Of course he will. Politicians’ behavior is shaped by an overwhelming desire to get elected and stay elected. That gives you power.

You see, although they may not know or care about your issues, you can get them to care about you. Especially when you live or work in their district and are therefore a constituent. You are one of theirs if you work in a medical practice in their district or live in their district. If you work in one district and live in another, you have a twofer: two sets of politicians who can care about you.

The most powerful moment in politics is when a voter talks with the person for whom they can vote. It’s true during the campaign. It’s true after they win. Members of the U.S. House and many state legislatures run for office every two years. That means they are always looking over their shoulder for someone who might run against them and looking ahead for voters in the next election.

It is hard to understand this if you have not run for office. But I can tell you that someone who is campaigning will give his or her full attention to a voter. If you can vote for me, you will have my undivided attention.

You can do something most professional lobbyists and no special interest group can do: you can vote for me. I not only want your vote, I lust for it, and just as important, the approval it represents. I have asked hundreds of state and federal elected officials across the country and they all confirm this effect. When running for or serving in office, you lust not only for contact but also for approval. Your eyes are always on the next election, and any voter who gets irritated could start a ripple across the district. (U.S. senators are a possible exception, since they only run every six years. But even they must keep a wary eye over their shoulder, especially in the two years before an election.)

Ralph Wright says voter have enormous power when they speak to the elected official they can vote for.

Ralph Wright, former speaker of House of Representatives, Vermont

Ralph Wright, who served as Speaker of the House in Vermont, put it this way:

“To a politician, when you put your name on the ballot—that’s a love affair. If you lose, they don’t love you.

“When you lose an election, they have said publicly, we reject you. It’s a big rejection. This ain’t some girl on the phone Friday night and she says, ‘I’m busy,’ and only she knows. This is the public saying they don’t love you and it’s reported in the next day’s newspaper for everyone to see. By the same token, it’s euphoric when 51% say, ‘We want you to represent us.’ Then you are loved.”

You may be wondering how I can say all this and also say that casting your vote is the least important weapon in your political arsenal.

In most cases your vote really isn’t going to make a difference, unless you and many others don’t vote. I’m sorry, but your vote is probably very predictable just as is mine and everybody else’s. You’ve heard of the red states and the blue states and red districts and blue districts. They are predictably Republican or Democratic. Most U.S. House districts and state house and senate districts are predictable because they have been designed to reelect the incumbent, or someone just like them. In presidential and governor elections, the election will be decided by the five percent or so of swing voters, those who vote for a Democrat sometimes, a Republican sometimes, or even an independent.

But it is the lust of elected officials for election and for approval by voters—all voters—that is your most important weapon. They don’t know how you voted. They don’t know how anyone is going to vote. All they know is that they have to try to convert every person they meet into a supporter.

It would be difficult to overstate the urgent drive in a politician to win support and love and admiration from every person who can cast a vote.

Face it: candidates and elected officials may never know or care about your issues. Your best option is to make them care about you and what you can do to elect them. Then they may care about your issues. In the following pages, I’ll show you how smart individuals and organizations do it, emphasizing three major areas: (1) attitude, (2) relationship, and (3) message. You’ll notice one thing is missing: that chart you may have seen titled ‘‘How a Bill Moves through the Legislature.’’ It’s useful to know, but don’t waste much time trying to learn the process. I’ll tell you how to get around that.

More important is the principle that you are going to build the right kind of long-term relationship with the people who represent you. Then use that relationship under the direction of people in an organized group such as an association who really know ‘‘how a bill moves through the legislature.’’ Let them tell you what to do and when to do it, and you will be all right.

A Reflection

As I was closing a seminar in Washington once, a woman stood up to get my attention, very agitated. I thought she was angry. ‘‘Joel,’’ she shouted, ‘‘you left something out.’’ She went on to explain that she had been in my seminar the year before and I said something that changed her life.

‘‘You told us last year that the people who write the letters, write the laws. I took it to heart and went home and started writing letters and it’s true. They pay attention.’’ The audience applauded. All I could do was thank her.

I appreciated the endorsement, and it sounds like something I would say because I believe it. But to be honest, I did not remember saying that, although I have many times since.

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